The Peninsula’s Food Revival

Despite a longtime reputation for lackluster dining, this subregion’s culinary scene has become more exciting than ever

Susannah Chen
Timelapse of Burlingame Ave in Burlingame. (Video by Albert Poon)

Aside from a year-round temperate climate, proximity to countless Internet startups, and some of the priciest housing in the country, the Peninsula towns of Burlingame, San Mateo, Woodside, Menlo Park, Palo Alto, and Mountain View share something surprising in common: They all have Michelin-starred restaurants. 

Despite being a stone’s throw from famously food-centric San Francisco, as well as home base to some of the largest companies in the world, the Peninsula—which covers every municipality south of San Francisco, from Brisbane to Sunnyvale—has never quite been known for its cutting-edge dining scene. In fact, when the Michelin Guide, which is generally regarded as the most prestigious restaurant guidebook in the world, expanded to the Bay in 2007, only one of the many restaurants that was bestowed a globally coveted Michelin star was on the Peninsula. 

But if the most recent edition of Michelin is any indicator, the tides are changing: The 2019 statewide guide awarded nine different restaurants on the Peninsula Michelin nods—and that’s just in stars for fine dining. From Millbrae to Mountain View, the Bay Area subregion has become a compelling destination for a broad range of food choices, attracting everyone from young acolytes of Thomas Keller to global fast-food franchises like Bonchon who are looking to expand in the American market. 

There are a multitude of reasons behind the culinary rise of the Peninsula, but San Francisco’s increasingly unsustainable costs are certainly one factor. Opening in a smaller town on the Peninsula is one way to serve the Bay without the high-stakes pressure of doing business in the city.

From the grill at ROOH. (Photo by Marc Fiorito)

From left to right, Sujan Sarkar (Executive Chef), Anu Bhambri (Co-founder), and Vikram Bhambri (Co-founder). (Photo by Kelly Puleio)

“San Francisco is costly compared to anywhere else,” Vikram Bhambri explained, citing higher expenses for everything from labor to health mandates to extra insurance costs. As co-owner and partner of ROOH, an Indian restaurant that has locations in both Palo Alto and San Francisco, he’s experienced this on a firsthand level. “That’s definitely one factor as to why lots of restaurants are now moving out and into other locations.”

The Peninsula’s easily accessible location between multiple major cities plays a huge part, too. Anne Le Ziblatt, who recently opened Nam Vietnamese Brasserie in Redwood City, has seen lots of young couples make the move from San Francisco in recent years. “If one person works in San Jose and the other lives in San Francisco, Redwood City puts you right in the middle of the Bay Area,” she said. “You’re also just across the bridge from the East Bay, so you can really go in any direction—you’re right in the middle.” 

Inside Nam Vietnamese Brasserie in Redwood City. (Photo by Albert Law)

Anne Le Ziblatt, owner of Nam Vietnamese Brasserie. (Photo by Albert Law)

That trend, along with a growing number of employers in the area, has meant the area’s dining scene has struggled to keep pace with increasing demand. “You’ve got a huge concentration of people who earn professional salaries,” Ziblatt said of Redwood City, pointing out that a diverse array of corporations from Box to McKinsey to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative have settled down there. “They’re not always going to drive to San Francisco for a meal.” 

Those companies also mean frequent expense account meals and corporate events. Having grown up in Palo Alto herself, Anya Fernald, co-founder and CEO of Belcampo Meat Co., which has a location in San Mateo, knows this firsthand: “I don’t think people realize how much business dining is a part of restaurants still today.”

Belcampo in Hillsdale (Photo by Belcampo)

Anya Fernald, co-founder and CEO of Belcampo Meat Co. (Photo from Belcampo)

Enter 2019’s nine destination-worthy Michelin restaurants, which range from contemporary French to a chef’s choice sushi tasting, as well as some of the most buzzed-about openings of the past few years, like Selby’s in Atherton and ROOH Palo Alto. Many cater in large part to that category, with special touches such as custom smokers for live-fire cooking and 15,000-bottle cellars that feature rare European wines. This attracts a wide pool of diners, many from out of town and even out of the state or country.

“You have lots of people who travel, and for them to go out to some of the nicer restaurants and have everything—music, food, service, the modern experience—come together in harmony, that’s what attracts people,” ROOH’s Bhambri pointed out.

But the culinary revival is far from limited to Michelin stars. Also part of the renaissance: a new class of elevated fast casual spots that are upscale enough to be attractive to Peninsula diners but come without the fuss of four-star dining.

Fernald, whose upbringing in Palo Alto has helped inform her knowledge of the Peninsula’s dining scene, describes Belcampo’s approach to dining as “fine-fast.” With a focus on seamless ordering technology, aesthetically clean dining areas, speedy service, and offerings that fit keto, paleo, and gluten-free diets, Belcampo’s format is ideal for a community that prioritizes convenience and speed, but not at the expense of comfort and luxury. 

“Diners are health-conscious and want a nice experience, but they don’t want it to take a long time,” she added. “What we offer is a nicer dining experience that you feel comfortable being at with your family. It’s kind of where dining is going, and I don’t think there’s enough of it yet on the Peninsula.”

Likewise, Ziblatt opened Nam in February of this year because she felt the market had a need for more casual, affordable weeknight options that also give diners a chance to linger and relax. “You can have an appetizer, an entree, and a glass of wine with a girlfriend and spend $50, but the environment is nice enough that you want to stay and relax,” she explained. “You feel good to be there, and you want to stay a little bit longer if you have time.”

The location is only a bonus. “Redwood City used to have the nickname ‘Deadwood City,’” Ziblatt joked. “But that has changed so much. Now it’s the most urban-feeling town between San Jose and San Francisco.”

If you find yourself on the Peninsula, here are some restaurants worth trying—and despite constantly shifting state and county reopening plans, they’re all open for takeout and/or delivery.

  • Saltyard in Burlingame for modern American fusion 
  • Park & Howard Bistro in Burlingame for cocktails and California fare
  • 31st Union in San Mateo for locally-sourced comfort food
  • Belcampo in San Mateo for grass-fed burgers and other fare
  • Nam Brasserie in Redwood City for casual Vietnamese in a relaxed atmosphere
  • Vesta in Redwood City for Cal-Ital pizza fresh from the wood-fired oven
  • Selby’s in Woodside for luxe American classics
  • Camper in Menlo Park for hyper-seasonal California cooking
  • ROOH in Palo Alto for progressive Indian with a live-fire twist
  • Bird Dog in Palo Alto for modern, Cal-Japanese cuisine
  • Zareen’s in Mountain View for flavor-packed dishes by way of India and Pakistan
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The list of restaurants highlighted in the story. Order delivery or grab pick-up from any of the places near you.